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Stepping up to the page

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Essay | 11 minute read
Novelist and runner Natalie Haynes on making it to the next page, the next paragraph, the next lamppost...

When people ask me why I took up running (which they do, often, because I am cartoonishly bad at small talk and can rarely think of anything to say at parties), I usually give the same answer. It’s a little glib, but as I said, I am terrible at making conversation. I tell them I took up running because I ran out of time to walk. And like all the best lies, this is partially true: in 2013 I judged the Man Booker Prize, and gave up any notion of spare time. I read (fitting it around my day job of writing) 151 novels in 204 days. On the day I reached book fifty, UPS delivered a box of fifty more. When book 151 arrived, it was 1,004 pages long, and I knelt down and cried in my hall.

As you can see then, I ran out of time to walk. I used to walk five miles or so each day, and suddenly the time that took wasn’t available: I was already getting up at 5.30 each morning to read a novel before I started writing for the day. It is a marker of how very tired I was that it took me quite a few weeks to remember there is something like walking, but which happens a bit faster. Did Mo Farah do it?

So it is true that I took up running because I needed the mileage and I didn’t have the time. But when I give my glib answer, I’m presupposing that we all agree that moving five miles a day on foot is a given. And that is clearly not the case. Even if I didn’t know the statistics (UKActive released figures last September which found that 26 per cent of us don’t do more than thirty minutes of exercise per week, compared to the NHS recommendation of 150 minutes per week), I would have plenty of anecdotal evidence: the looks of astonishment when someone asks if I had a difficult journey to somewhere a few miles away from my home, and I tell them I walked. My partner once told me that I view any day on which I use a travelcard as, essentially, a failure. He is right.

But the overlap between writers and walkers has existed for centuries: Dickens used to walk further than I do (I cover about 3,000 miles a year on foot, running and walking), though he mostly took to the streets by night. And the connection between walking and thinking is made perfectly by Kierkegaard: ‘Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it … But by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill … Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.’ I know we aren’t all agreed that walking miles each day is a good use of time, but at least I am in good company. And while I couldn’t say that I have never had a thought so burdensome that walking didn’t make it lighter, I would say it is pretty rare to feel as bad about something after a walk as I felt before.

But running is a different matter. There are plenty of running writers, from Haruki Murakami to Robert Macfarlane. But running isn’t entwined with writing the way that walking is. If I am stuck in a piece of writing, running won’t fix it for me. That requires a walk. Much as I wish it went faster, I am obliged to concede that my brain works best at slightly less than four miles an hour. That is when I untie knots in my plotting, or work out exactly who a character is, or uncover the elusive first sentence which will allow the column to flow. I’ve always felt rather uneasy when Murakami says he wishes his tombstone would read: ‘At least he never walked.’ Mine would have to say: ‘She walked miles, especially when she was baffled or sad (which was often).’

I can’t think properly when I’m running, because I didn’t start until I was in my late thirties (another glib, partially true answer to the question, ‘Why did you start running?’ is this: I wanted to be better, quantifiably better, at one thing in my forties than I was in my thirties) and, honestly, I need to concentrate or I’ll trip up. Paths and pavements aren’t completely even, and I have terrible clearance: I run with my feet about two millimetres above the ground. One rogue tree root and I’ll be laid out if I’m not paying attention. Although the first and last time this happened to me – I was about three months into my running life – I broke my fall with my hands and continued the run, my skin green with the moss I had scraped off the paving stones. My hands hurt for days afterwards, but I stole the moss-stained palms for an injured character a few years later. So even the bad runs pay off in the long term.

But the act of running gives me something I cannot get from a walk, and that is total mental freedom. I agree with Kierkegaard that walking is objectively better than sitting, in terms of feeling good. But it is not always sufficient. And although the day-to-day business of writing is closely connected to walking, the business of being a functioning person – for me – requires something else. Running demands that you concentrate on something which requires almost no conscious thought at all. It is a particular kind of thinking which is all about the next few seconds and entirely pragmatic: mind that low-hanging branch, is that dog on an extendable lead, am I about to get mugged by a flock of Canada geese (the nightclub bouncers of the bird world). It also proves that you are more, or at least other, than you think.

I never think of myself as a runner, because I started too late. I sometimes catch my reflection in the mirror as I am about to leave my flat, and I feel like I am wearing someone else’s clothes, the costume for something I don’t know how to do. And yet they are my clothes, ones which I bought to replace the ones I have worn out doing the thing I think I can’t do. Last year, I flew to Sydney to take part in the Writers’ Festival. The morning after I stepped off a twenty-four-hour flight, I ran Sydney Half Marathon, because I’d noticed it took place the day before the Writers’ Festival began, and when else would I ever get the chance to discover a city by running along its closed roads as the sun broke through the Opera House curves? I had an inaccurate impression of how good an idea it was to go for a run after a long flight, because two years earlier, I had run through Auckland Domain a day or two after landing in New Zealand, and seen a purple swamphen, something I still count as one of my life highpoints (the swamphen’s swift exit into the trees suggests this feeling was not reciprocal).

Marathon runners under the Harbour Bridge, Sydney (Photo by Tim Clayton/Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

The Sydney half was a magical, hallucinatory experience, heightened by the absurd hilliness of the course (which I had failed to fully notice before I signed up; my toes were black for four months afterwards) and the relentless efficiency of Australian runners. As we ran towards the Botanic Garden, and the morning sun blazed through the Opera House roof just as I’d imagined, the combination of jetlag and runner’s high had me grinning like a fool. I looked around me for someone to share it with, but everyone was facing the front, headphones in, grins hidden. I guess if you run in a city every day, it loses some of its novelty. I felt like an impostor, a tourist among these serious people. Only when I saw the photographs of the start line did I realise something strange: it took me ages to find myself among the crowd because I looked exactly like everyone else. Like a runner.

There is something valuable in having these experiences, which force you to realise that your assumptions of your own limitations may not be accurate. If you can run when you don’t believe you’re a runner, maybe you can write a novel when you don’t feel like a novelist. Obviously, there are limits to this philosophy: I don’t feel like a cardiovascular surgeon either, and sometimes it’s good to go with those instincts. But self-doubt can segue into self-sabotage, and many writers spend a lot of time believing there has been some sort of administrative error and they can’t write novels after all. There is a lot to be said for having a concrete example in your mind of an instance when you thought you couldn’t do something but discovered you could. The fact that running is not creative, not open to interpretation, only helps. No critics are going to pick apart your run, or swim, or ride. And if the odd passing van driver feels compelled to share an opinion on your technique, you can embrace a perfect opportunity to practise disregarding unnecessary feedback.

Even the best authors don’t feel like it every day, but a bad day of writing is like a bad run: you have to get through them, even if it feels like there’s nothing to show for it at the end. If there are only bad days, that’s a more serious problem. But for the most part, writing on the days when it doesn’t come easy and running on the days when it feels like a trudge are part of the process. There is very little correlation, at least in my experience, between work (or a run) feeling good, and the finished results being good. Some days writing feels like a breeze, and the words which came so easily are the first to go when I start editing. Other days, writing is like pulling teeth, and I am astonished when I read it back to discover the words are actually good. Sometimes the miles feel brutal because I got something wrong (nutrition, sleep, booze, whatever) and sometimes they were tough because I was going really fast. From the inside, the struggle feels the same.

The relationship between running and work is not all one-way either. Until I started judging book prizes, I had always divided work into fractions. A quarter of it done, a third, halfway and so on. It took the brute force of reading a novel a day for a hundred days before I found something that wasn’t helped by this system of marking constant, incremental gains. When I reached milestone numbers (the hundredth book, for example), I felt no better when I looked back over what I’d achieved. If anything, I felt worse. Rather than thinking that I would blast through the final fifty-one books because I’d made it through the first hundred, I felt that making it through the first hundred had left me too battered and bruised to read one more book, let alone another fifty. My eyes hurt and so did my brain. This experience stood me in excellent stead when I ran my first half marathon. The last two miles aren’t easier because you already ran eleven miles. The last two miles are run on tired legs, and thinking about what you’ve already done only makes you feel tireder. I’ve found the best advice for the late stages of a long run is, conversely, the advice E. L. Doctorow issued on novel-writing: ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ Don’t think about the pages read, the words written, or the miles run. Just make it to the end of this page, to the end of the paragraph, to the next lamp post, and you’ll get there eventually.

Running is gratifyingly low-tech: you only really need a pair of good shoes, and the rest of the kit can easily be constructed from your regular wardrobe (my regular wardrobe is somewhere between running clothes and pyjamas; I think they call it ‘athleisure’ but the message I am sending out is that I work from home and you’re lucky I got dressed at all). You can start and finish at your front door. Even races are not complicated. In fact, the minutiae of race-running are almost as therapeutic as the run. Planning for a race – safety pins for the race bib, a banana to eat, a hoody to jettison at the start line (the stewards collect them and donate them to charity), a mental plan of the hills – uses the same part of my brain as stressing about things I can’t control. In other words, time spent making sure I know how I will get to the start line and what I should have eaten beforehand is time I don’t waste wondering if anyone will like my next book or whether I have lost my performing mojo. I’m losing destructive-thinking time, and the cost to me is minimal. It might have made me differently dull at parties, but that is a problem for my fellow guests. Besides, if they turn on me, at least I can run home.